Tag: Bloggers in Southern California

How Photography Makes Me a Better Writer

Since about 2010, I’ve been working on writing a version of a story that shows what it’s like to grow up with a family member who has a mental illness. I’ve written it as a novel in stories; I’ve written it as a memoir; I’ve written it as a straight up novel. Honestly, on the whole, I have failed to turn a story I believe in into something that is publishable and a piece of art. I have had pieces of those projects published, but I have not achieved the larger goal of turning them into a book.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time on this project, and perhaps it’s just too close. Perhaps I need to move away from this narrative and start one of my new projects. This school of thought clearly makes sense: perhaps you have to kill your darlings for good to create what you need.

Joseph A Lapin
Joseph A Lapin

But what I have found is that the most powerful stories are the hardest to write. Stephen King talks about discovering stories like uncovering fossils. You start digging underneath the surface, and suddenly, you start to unearth a massive creature that is larger than you could have ever imagined. Writing this type of story is like following a dream. You allow the story to come to you instead of forcing it. I probably have been forcing my story in the past, but I can’t help it: I’m right back to trying to tell this story again. This time, however, I’ve decided that it isn’t my story I was trying to tell; it is the story of the family member who has the mental illness.

Since I’ve made this discovery, I’ve been writing up a storm. It just seems to be flowing out of me, but this week, I started to hear those old voices start to creep in: It’s not that good; you’re wasting your time; you can’t write this story because it’s too close. Honestly, some of these things I’m hearing might be true. I could get to the end of this WIP and realize I have jack shit. So I was in a funk. I didn’t want to write. I hated what I was writing. And I was thinking about moving on to another project.

Then something changed. What I’ve realized about novels and memoirs over the years is that, well, they’re freaking hard work that lack inherent short-term goals. Unlike journalism, which sometimes has quick results and you can see your work published within a week of writing a piece, novels and stories and poems have a much longer shelf life, and the fruits of the work might take years to generate — if at all. So that’s why you have to find a way to make your creative projects work beyond the page. Here’s what I mean:

The other week I saw the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon. Honestly, it’s a phenomenal movie with a Jack Kerouac type as a main character who has an incredibly rich back story filled with emotional trauma. She’s shooting drugs and becoming reckless with her body. Her marriage ends, and she decides to hike up the Pacific Coast to find a balance or a wholeness in her life. What drives her is a comment from her mother: “You can put yourself in the way of beauty.”

That line, “You can put yourself in the way of beauty,” had a major impact on me in the theater. It’s something I should do everyday. As a young kid, I made a promise that there wouldn’t be a single day that went by that I wasn’t putting myself in front of something beautiful — that I wasn’t struck by something awesome — that I didn’t feel alive and a part of the world. Well, I definitely have those days when I don’t find beauty. I don’t seek it. I don’t put myself in the way of it. This isn’t a new idea either. It’s something that I remember discovering when reading Wordsworth and studying romanticism. It was about taking in something in nature, something like a dancing daffodil, and recalling that image in a moment of tranquility later. For a while, that’s how I thought about poetry and great writing. Now I also see it as essential to the creative process.

In order to get out of my funk with my story, I realized I just had to accomplish that goal: find the beauty. So I went out and started taking some photographs. I went down to Ocean Beach and took these from near the pier.

What I really enjoyed about this photo shoot was that I just put myself in the way of something beautiful and during editing I started to interpret that scene in different ways using various effects I’ve been learning with Photoshop. It freed my mind a bit. It allowed me to be creative without carrying about publications or an audience; it also allowed me to attain an immediate goal compared to writing a novel that takes (what feels like) a lifetime.

Then I went to Downtown San Diego. I wanted to find “beauty” there too. There is an airport parking garage I always see on my way to work, and I’ve been meaning to stop there and take photos of the city and the airplanes landing on the runway. So I set up my tripod and waited. Here is what I found:

These photos ended up being the same process. I took an angle and worked it in different ways. This was tremendously inspiring for me. It freed my mind. What I’m finding with photography is that it allows me to step out of the writing space and use the same wheels that I build stories and poems and kind of give them a new work out. It’s helping remind me that art comes in many forms; it’s helping to give me balance to sit at the desk after a long day of work. It’s helping me write. It’s helping me keep going. It’s helping me find the beauty in front of me.

Thoughts from the Rose Parade and Bowl

This last weekend my family flew into San Diego from Massachusetts to visit, and we were planning on heading to the Rose Bowl to watch Florida State take on the Oregon Ducks. Before the game, we watched the Rose Parade in Pasadena. This has been my Dad’s dream since he was a kid, growing up in a row home in Philadelphia and watching the parade and the game on television.

I picture him sitting there in my grandmother’s house, a young man who was then working at Franklin Field, cleaning up after the fans in the stands, sitting on the green carpet my grandmother had, observing the bands and the floats moving through the streets on an old RCA television with rabbit ears. He told me that he never imagined that he would be there in Pasadena.

So that made the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl more important than it could have been without him. I have some photos below that I took with my Samsung, and I wish I had my DSLR to take better pictures.

The parade was by far the best parade that I had ever attended, and I’ve been in a marching band. There were bands from Florida State, the University of Oregon, and Midland High School. Plus, the floats were monstrously big, and it was hard to imagine they were constructed out of flowers. Probably the funniest aspect of the parade was that the pooper scoopers who followed the horses were receiving some of the biggest applauses.

But the parades struck me in a strange way, because I was a member of the Clinton High School marching band. I was a drummer, and yes I wore the goofy hats and the strange jackets. I looked at these other bands, and I just realized how terrible of a band we were comparatively. We had a great band leader and excellent teacher, but our lines were out of proportion, our brass section was out of tune, and our drum corps would get tired and hold the drums as if they were sacks of water and they were traveling through the desert.

So what is so special about the Rose Parade? After the parade is over, everyone found their cars and started weaving through the traffic, except for my family, who went walking down Colorado in search of food or a place to sit — anything to avoid the traffic. On the way out, there was trash all over the streets: an unopened red Gatorade bottle, soda cups, silly string, and countless containers of food. It was a mess. Sometimes I wonder what all the fuss is about.

But then I saw an RV — they were all over the place in parking lots to watch the parade — with posters and streamers ushering in the new year. I guess that’s what it’s all really about: ushering in a new year with a celebration, with an over the top and celebrated walk through the streets of Pasadena in order for us all to stay positive about the future. I think about the parades where governments march tanks and warheads down the street — here we cheer on floats made out of flowers and applaud military members on horseback.

That’s what this post is really about: welcoming the new year. Over the next year, this blog will follow my travels as well as my 2015 goals: publish more stories and poems; finish a draft of my new novel; and master the Creative Cloud. Thanks to everyone for making 2014 a great year. Your comments are always welcomed.

(As for the Rose Bowl game, for the sake of my FSU friends, I won’t bring up any of the details.)